There’s no possible way for the franchise to get any bigger. (Said despite knowing full well there’s the two-part Infinity Wars coming.) Avengers: Age of Ultron is a massive movie, appropriately sized for all the stars, action, and potential it contains. The problem is that its enormity is also struggling for structural integrity as it bows to an even bigger big picture.
In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this film slides in at the very end of it all, superseding even the recently released Marvel’s Daredevil. The Avengers have moved on from the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. following Captain America: The Winter Soldier and have started hunting all over the world for Hydra and Loki’s scepter.
Things begin to get troubled as the Maximoff twins—Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olson), two experimentally enhanced humans—futz with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his tender brain. With the contents of the scepter in hand, he accidentally creates Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence that has taken the token logical conclusion of “world safety” to mean “destroy all humans.”
The problem here is that there’s a lot more to the interweaving narratives than just attempting to take down Ultron. Both of the Maximoff twins have entirely fleshed out and massively interesting backstories that are touched and forgotten just as briefly, instead opting to leave the lingering impression that they are validated in both their nefarious roots and their subsequent developments.
There’s also a moderately tended love story between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), though it feels somewhat confused throughout. The connection on the battlefield is touching considering the accidental and bred lack of humanity in the two, but the romance never quite gets around to feeling natural.
Stretching the humanity thread between that and Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) furtive life and the contrasting Ultron/Vision perspectives, it’s impressive that throughout the whole two-plus hours, a thematic consistency is achieved. Sight of the answer to that question rarely wavers. What it fails to find along the way is a true protagonist, one that grows and pulses along with the overall plot.
In the first The Avengers, it was quite obvious that the contention—despite the other heavy hitters—lay solely with Captain America and Iron Man, and Iron Man grew into the selfless hero he tries not to be while Cap realized his leadership role. In Age of Ultron, none of the Avengers really change. Their motivations from the first third stay motionless through to the last third.
Between all the lack of characterization, however, is some terrific writing. Director/writer Joss Whedon still knows how to play into the strengths of putting unexpected but not unwarranted words in the right mouths at the right time. Stark, in particular, is a great playground for Whedon’s talents. He even imbues some vocal menace in Ultron while his physicality is decidedly less imposing.
And then there’s the action. A lot of it looks pretty fantastic from the snow-laden banger of an opener to the absolutely oversized climax, but a lot of it is also fairly hard to follow. The ending is especially ridden with a spatial problem where keeping in mind everyone’s location is almost insurmountable for the audience. (There’s just so much going on!)
While some of the more marketed scenes like Hulk smashing up on Stark’s Hulkbuster are total gems, it’s hard to not think back on the last Avengers and wonder where the tension has gone. The pit of despair is nowhere to be found, nor is the constant question of who will win any given encounter. The sprawling, bursting conclusion even fails to find this quivering notion.
Then, by the end, you even come to question why some of the characters left on the screen are there. It’s not that they’re not great characters or their actors aren’t producing quality performances but rather that you’re already filled to the brim with personalities and plots to chew and digest that it feels a bit gluttonous to keep eating.
It calls to question whether it’s a product of Whedon’s trying to do too much or if it’s because Kevin Feige (the Grand Poobah of the MCU) made Whedon do it all. There’s just as much clamoring towards the future of the filmic universe as there is digging into the past and putting it all on full display. It’s even hard now to reconcile what cameos and teases existed in which movies and have been maintained or abandoned since, especially with a failing continuation between franchises of personal dramatization. (Where is Cap’s moral dilemma or Stark’s insecurity?)
Despite it all, though, there’s certainly an almost unquantifiable fun to the movie. Seeing everyone together again is fantastic, as is their banter and the developments in their individual abilities and tech. It’s like a multimillion dollar show and tell in some ways, and it’s hard to look away. You can’t help but ask what’s next, always hungry for more and more.
A lot of that comes down to the actors behind all the heroes and villains. Each one has held entire movies up on their own either as their Marvel character or someone else entirely, so the performance capabilities are appreciable. But also the chemistry of it all is still remarkable. Whether through happenstance or careful deliberation, this core of Avengers feels rife with superhero camaraderie.
Clearly there are a lot of problems with the movie, despite all the good it does with its size and scope and buckets of fun sloshing about. None of its issues are breaking, to the point where you just give up and say no more. They’re more of the sort where you dismiss in the moment and slowly overlook as the days go on afterwards. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still worth watching, if only for the optimism of a better future.
+ Potent writing from Whedon
+ Great ensemble performances from the Avengers
+ Unbelievably huge action with some choice gems worth remembering and talking about
– Overflowing with unrealized subplots and some convoluted ones
– Feels stretched beyond reason as it fits (and misfits) into an odd slot of the MCU
Final Score: 7 out of 10